May 24, 2018

King County Big Read Builds Bridges

The_Beautiful_Things_That_Heaven_Bears_coverKing County Library System (KCLS) will use The Big Read—a staple of library programming—to focus on the immigrant experience this fall, addressing specific needs in three of Washington state’s most diverse communities.

The suburban library system is among 75 communities around the nation participating in The Big Read from September 2015 to June 2016. Funded by the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), the program encourages reading one book across a community as a way to discuss literature.

What sets KCLS apart is its plans to develop programs with its $15,000 grant to encourage residents of SeaTac, White Center, and Tukwila to use Dinaw Mengestu’s novel The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (Penguin) as a springboard for discussing real-life community issues.

In Mengestu’s 2007 debut novel, the refugee protagonist wrestles with neighborhood gentrification, isolation, racial and cultural tension, and loss of identity—all experiences and issues faced by residents in southwestern King County, said Jo Anderson Cavinta, KCLS Diversity Program coordinator.

To ensure that KCLS offers a safe and welcoming environment to discuss the experiences of immigrants and the receiving community, the library system is partnering with the Seattle-based Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWA), White Center Community Development Association (WCCDA)/White Center Promise Neighborhood, Highline Public Schools, Highline College, and King County Housing Authority, all of which work in the region.

Each group brings different strengths to the partnership. Both ReWA and White Center Promise Neighborhood will be “instrumental” in helping librarians with cultural competency and a deep understanding of the immigrant community’s needs, Cavinta said. ReWA provides expertise with languages and dialects and in-depth knowledge of the refugee community.

The WCCDA offers experience in facilitating “difficult conversations about culture,” said Laurie Bohm, director of the White Center Promise Neighborhood, a collaborative education effort. “We’re just really excited to have the opportunity to engage the refugee community around this book and around the issues related to what it means to be a newcomer,” said Marilyn Littlejohn, ReWA education director.


White Center Library, KCLS

White Center Library, KCLS

The idea to use The Big Read to address specific community needs started with Littlejohn. She was looking for creative educational programs and came across The Big Read. Intrigued by Ethiopian-born Mengestu’s novel, Littlejohn realized its potential to build bonds between residents of southwestern King County. “It was an opportunity that surfaced and we seized it,” Littlejohn said.

She emailed KCLS and her idea was passed onto Cavinta, who realized The Big Read needed a regional approach. In White Center, SeaTac and Tukwila, more than 60 percent of residents are people of color, 30 percent foreign born, and 40 percent speak a language other than English at homes. Teens and children in the school districts speak more than 70 languages, Cavinta said.

While Spanish, Vietnamese, Samoan, and Somali are among the most common languages in southwestern King County, the region is home to immigrants from Cambodia, Iraq, Iran, Russia, Eastern Europe, Burma, Nepal, Ethiopia, Condo, and other African nations, said Mahnaz Eshetu, ReWA executive director.

Cavinta also brought the White Center Promise Neighborhood into the partnership. “We all got really excited about this because it offered a real connection between the receiving community and the immigrant community,” Bohm said.

Bohm, Littlejohn, Eshetu and Cavinta all say they see the novel as a way to build bridges between different community groups, including newcomers and established residents, and immigrants, refugees, and people born in the Evergreen state. Various cultures within the refugee community could benefit from interacting with each other, Littlejohn said. Library events can offers residents a way to meet people outside the communities where they live, work, and worship, Bohm said. “We’re hoping to mix these different groups so they not only share their stories but learn from add teach each other,” Littlejohn said.

While The Big Read events are still being planned, the partners have talked about ensuring that people from the receiving communities and immigrant communities help facilitate each discussion. “This needs to be something that is safe and something that people can really connect to,” Bohm said. “We’re trying to see what really makes sense for the type of conversations we want to have.”

Approaches may include exploring the novel with the visual, performing and culinary arts. The White Center Promise just received an $8,500 grant from 4Culture, King County’s cultural services agency, for a visual storytelling workshop. This will give immigrants and refugees the chance to explore their experiences leaving their birth country and coming to the United States. The White Center Community Development Association will display the artwork.

“The grant is very flexible in the type of programming you do,” Cavinta said. “We’re thinking of some very creative activities.”

Because public transportation can be challenging in southwestern King County, Cavinta said she is hoping to partner with existing events. One is an October community kitchen event organized by Tukwila Parks and Recreation and Project Feast, which trains refugees and others to work in commercial kitchens. Cavinta said she is working with the two groups in hopes of having a conversation about food and culture.

KCLS is also approaching Book-It Repertory Theatre, which adapted Mengestu’s novel in 2008 when Seattle Public Library (SPL) offered the title as a communitywide read. At the time, SPL’s surrounding programming also included a look at gentrification, but otherwise primarily focused on African history and culture.

ReWA plans to focus on primarily refugee youth and to use video to hold conversations with young people about their experiences, Littlejohn said. The discussions will be incorporated into an existing program that helps prepare refugee youth for careers, she said.

KCLS is reviewing its proposed budget because it received $5,000 less than the asked for $20,000, Cavinta said. Mengestu will speak during The Big Read but a date has not yet been set. KCLS plans to host The Big Read kickoff in October and events may stretch into November.

Starting in September, KCLS will distribute 800 copies of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears to the community, Cavinta said. The library system also will offer ten book discussion kits, as well as audio versions for checkout or download.


As of mid-June, KCLS has been unable to find translations of the novel that it can purchase, Cavinta said.

KCLS is contacting other libraries using Mengestu’s novel to see how they are handling translations, Cavinta said. The library system also is considering residents’ literacy in the first language, which groups are bilingual, and which may have limited English skills. One option is to translate specific passages that could be read and used for discussion, Cavinta said.

The NEA offers readers’ and educators’ guides as well as video training for hosting successful discussions. In addition, the library system will be working to ensure staff is prepared for these conversations, and will coordinate training to increase their understanding of the experiences of immigrant and refugee populations in southwest King County, Cavinta said. “It’s going to be a learning opportunity for all of us,” Cavinta said. “We’ve got a lot of knowledge around the table.”

Cavinta said that the librarians and partnering groups want to balance community discussions so that they include both immigrant and receiving communities and are facilitated by people experienced in these types of discussions. “I anticipate that the dialog will be really rich,” Cavinta said.

Bohm said she expects that community members will find these conversations shatter some of their stereotypes and people will see similarities among themselves, rather than differences.

“One of the things we want to ensure is that this is really a place where we can jump off and start building our relationships,” Cavinta said. “We want to make sure this sustained beyond the project.”

Marta Murvosh is teen librarian working for a regional library system in the Pacific Northwest. Follow her at

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